As we draw near to the beach, that moist, vibrant smell gives way to the sound of breaking waves. Even before reaching the shore, many of us are already anticipating the feel of the warm tropical water on our skin. The ocean is calling. Despite the presence of red flags and dangerous surf, some won’t look both ways. They won’t think twice. Into the water they go. If it’s during monsoon season in Phuket, some will not come out.
Why do they do it? Research shows that being near the ocean triggers activity in the region of the brain that processes memories, even in those that have never been to the sea before. When humans feel, taste, hear or smell water, instinctual and emotional responses automatically kick in. For many, being near the ocean creates feelings of awe, peace and joy. Without even realising it, the decision to enter the water is made.
Tourists who spend their limited holiday time and hard-earned money to come to Phuket, and other beach destinations worldwide, are often determined to heed the call of the ocean, despite the presence of red flags, warning signs and dangerous surf. This is a serious global problem, and is not unique to Thailand.
According to the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), colour-coded warning flags that fly at beach access points are designed to notify swimmers if it is safe to enter the water. However, these “passive” means for providing beach safety information often fail, leading to the widely-seen spectacle of swimmers playing in dangerous surf conditions, often directly in front of red ‘no swimming here’ flags.
“The flag system is intended as a tool for lifeguards to inform the public about surf conditions,” explained Chris Brewster, past president of the USLA. “The flag system presupposes that if people don’t understand or choose to ignore the flags, that there are lifeguards present to protect them,” he added. “Using warning flags without lifeguards is like offering fire safety education but providing no firefighters.”
Worse still, many of Phuket’s beaches, while just as dangerous as those with red flags, have no flags displayed at all, nor lifeguards on duty.
Modern, trained lifeguards do much more than carry out actual rescues, Chris explained. “It’s important to understand that the job of a lifeguard is prevention – rescue is the last resort.”
For every actual rescue, lifeguards carry out more than 100 “preventative actions” such as warning swimmers about the emergence of rip currents or separating swimmers from other conflicting aquatic activities, such as boats or surfboard riders.
“Preventing drowning is not about waiting for someone to get into distress and rescuing them, but rather preventing the distress in the first place,” Chris said. “If lifeguards are not on duty, the preventive role – from warning to rescue – is lost and drowning deaths will continue to occur.”
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
– Sea Fever by John Masefield
Daren Jenner is a bodysurfer and Ocean Lifeguard in Southeast Asia. He is also the International Surf Lifesaving Association (ISLA) Marine Safety Officer for Phuket. Visit www.islasurf.org